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The Real Deal on Grassroots Leadership

Maximizing Returns: Investing in Nontraditional Leaders. This is a report that is worth reading and here are four reasons why.

First, its authors are Mohammad Dawood, Jerry Ann Hebron, Lisa Luevanos, Mary Luevanos and Victor Robinson, members of the Community Connections Small Grants Program's grantmaking panel in Detroit. They - and all panel members - are residents from some of the neighborhoods that are targeted for Community Connections grants. Their job is to come together monthly to review applications and award grants for innovative, youth-focused grassroots projects in Detroit neighborhoods. Their hard work and dedication have a lot to do with why Community Connections is one of the leaders in the resident-led grantmaking arena.

So here they are, speaking out about their own learning journey as community grantmakers. I LOVE that.

Think about a virtual room where the real decisions are made. Residents from the neighborhoods that are most affected by those decisions are at that table. Sitting along the wall are a few others. These are people who have jobs that are about community something - community change, community engagement, community development, community building, etc. They are there to offer information and help wheels turn, but not direct, dictate priorities, control dialogue or decide.

This is the room where community engagement is real, and where the organizations and institutions that understand the importance of growing grassroots leadership are aware of the power they hold and are rigorous in their practice of stepping out of the space where residents can be powerful together.

In this publication, it's the resident grantmakers who are speaking from their experience and about their perspective. How different is this from so many other publications that philanthropy has produced over the years that include some stories here and there from people who are the recipients of technical assistance or leadership development efforts, with the expertise featured coming from technical assistance providers or those who designed or funded the leadership program that "produced" these successful leaders? That's a different room with a different table. Providers or funders are at the table, with resident service recipients around the edges. The difference is profound.

Second, it is important to everyone to hear how the authors understand capacity and capacity building. So much of what is written about growing grassroots leadership and building capacity is about training people to be effective in the non-profit arena - smoothing out the rough edges so people can learn the professional ropes and fit in.

And so much about building capacity is about building organizational capacity. I agree that in some organizations that are big enough to create their own weather, you can legitimately talk about organizational capacity. But in the world of community, where people group up or form smaller, flatter organizations, isn't it all about who's there? It's commonplace for there to be a continual cycle of people fading in and out, with what happens in the moment depending on who's there and their own experience with grouping up to get something done.

The authors of this publication come through this community door where individuals grouping up turns into collective power. And thus they prioritize the importance of growing individual capacity and the connections between people on similar journeys. They begin from an understanding that people arrive not as potential leaders - but as people who already have a life-time of experience. They recognize that growing individual capacity needs to begin with the knowledge that people are already powerful in the place where it counts - their own community. They come at individual capacity building with the question of "what else would be useful to add" to someone's experience and knowledge bank to help them become even more powerful and effective – especially in the weird hinterland where people and institutions are bumping into each other with a shared interest in community change.

Third, they are talking about practical things that have been useful to them -things that are within reach but often do not make it to the top of what professionals think community residents need to be more effective.

Here’s what these nontraditional leaders mentioned as useful for their own learning journey.

  • Opportunities to connect with people from other communities who are on similar journeys. These connections can offer practical how-to information, spark next step ideas, show that most problems people face are not unique, and help people see and appreciate their own strengths and progress.

  • Opportunities to "do" and see others "doing" - not sitting in a chair and listening to someone else tell them about doing. Learning by doing, in a supportive environment, helps build both skills and confidence. It is in "doing" that we push ourselves in ways that keep us going and propel us forward.

  • Opportunities to learn more about each other and strengthen relationships with people in their own communities. Professionals might call this networking and it is indeed that. But in the real world, we think about this as getting to know each other, hanging out, and moving past acquaintances to friends. Why is this important? It’s only by taking that step from acquaintance to friend that we share more about what makes us tick and discover common ground. And it’s knowing more about motivating passions and common ground that we can discover how we can be more powerful together.

Finally, it’s what it takes to help these opportunities happen.

The authors remind us that opportunities that professionals take for granted – growing their networks, learning from peers in other communities, and being offered opportunities that stretch them - are often unavailable, unaffordable or even invisible to community people from disenfranchised communities. This occurs even when residents have been invited to join professionals in setting priorities and making grant decisions.

It takes someone working in the weird middle-space between institutions and communities to continually lean towards community residents and challenge institutional assumptions about what residents need, want or can do. In this case, it was Lisa Leverette, Community Connections staff person, working as a “gapper” bridging the institutional funding world on one side and Detroit neighborhoods on the other.

Lisa was the spotter of opportunities such as Grassroots Grantmakers’ On the Ground learning exchanges and one of the people who helped those exchanges evolve in ways that equalized the power relationship between professionals and residents. She also appreciated the networking power of taking a field trip together, and advocated for money in the budget to ensure that opportunities to field trips came around regularly and were available to everyone. And, she supported the group in developing their own learning tradition of meeting beforehand to name their own learning goals and to debrief afterwards, thus helping everyone make the most of the experience and identify ways to apply what they learned at home.

Congratulations to Mohammad Dawood, Jerry Ann Hebron, Lisa Luevanos, Mary Luevanos, Victor Robinson and the Community Connections team for this thoughtful report.


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